The Failed Disney Mobile Phone Service

The Failed Disney Mobile Phone Service

Disney is no stranger to dipping their toes
into a new venture. Walt himself took the company from animated
shorts to features, to live action films, and even to theme parks. Decades later the company would explore everything
from retail stores to cruise lines to state fairs. So when the cell phone industry began to explode
in the early aughts, it was no surprise that Disney gave it a shot. Enter, Disney Mobile. Like their other ventures, Disney saw a corner
of the market to capitalize on. By 2005/2006 75% of 17 year olds in the United
States had their own cell phone. That ship had sailed. However, only 42% of 13 year olds had their
own cell phone, and that number was still on the rise. That’s where Disney decided to step in. They’d market Disney Mobile not only to
the growing market of phones for kids, but to their parents as well. It would be a family network with a priority
on ways to monitor and limit what kids could do on their phone. But you see, it wouldn’t be their network. I mean it would, but it also wouldn’t, because
Disney Mobile would be an MVNO. MVNO stands for Mobile Virtual Network Operator. In short, MVNOs are mobile networks that have
almost everything a regular cell phone carrier would have. Their own branding, their own pricing model,
their own customer support team and their own deals with phone manufacturers. The one thing MVNOs don’t have, however,
is an actual cell phone network. That, they lease from the major carriers,
such as AT&T or Verizon. It’s a way for companies to get into the
industry without the infrastructure costs of building their own coverage. By the mid-aughts, MVNOs were on the rise,
with over 175 either launched or in the works. Their appeal at the time was that they could
build their mobile service around a specific niche in order to reach a certain market. Virgin Mobile, for instance, focused on teenagers
and young adults who might not meet the credit requirements that major carriers set by specializing
on pre-paid service. The short lived Amp’d Mobile catered to
media heavy users, offering videos, music, and games. More and more companies saw this quickly growing
industry, and realized that if they found their own unique corner, they might be able
to build a business out of it. That includes Disney, who wasn’t even new
to the MVNO game. Back at the end of 2004, ESPN had announced
their own take on the trend, with mobile ESPN. Leasing usage from the Sprint PCS network,
mobile ESPN would offer its users everything from video highlights from recent games, to
up-to-the-minute scores. It would be the mobile network for the die-hard
sports fan. Taking that idea to their overall brand, the
next step would be Disney Mobile. Announced in the summer of 2005 and estimated
to have a $100 million investment, Disney Mobile would primarily focus on parental controls
for phones aimed at kids. Boy: And I can get all kinds of themes, ringtones
and lots of cools games, like Pirates of the Caribbean. Girl: Whoa! You must have the coolest mom ever. Boy: Yeah, pretty much. Mom: And I can check his phone usage, locate
his handset, and even control when he can use his phone. All from my computer or Disney Mobile handset. Coworker: Whoa! You must be the coolest mom ever. Mom: Yeah, pretty much. Launching in 2006 and partnering with Pantech
and LG Electronics to offer two phone options, the cell phones would have what was called
Family Center features. Parents would have the ability to limit and
monitor the number of minutes, text messages, and downloads their kids’ phones were allowed. On top of that, they’d be able to pick and
choose what days of the week and what hours of the day the children’s phones would make
calls and texts, with an obvious exception to 911. The Family Alert feature would allow the parents
to send a message to the kid’s phones that the children would have to read and acknowledge
before they could continue using it. Lastly, the Family Locator feature would use
the phone’s GPS to let parents know where their kids were. In a surprising turn, the phones themselves
were moderately priced and designed. The handsets started at $60 with a plan, and
while they did feature the Disney Mobile logo on them, they were otherwise completely normal
flip phones. No Mickey Mouse or other cartoon branding. At launch, Disney Mobile was fairly well received. People already knew that cell phones were
no passing fad, and so there was no stopping the eventual rise in kids using them. So it was considered a good thing that Disney
was throwing their hat into the ring to try and ensure they were as safe as possible. While Disney wasn’t public with any numbers,
there were early talks to bring the service overseas to the UK and other countries. However it would only be a couple of months
before red flags started to show up. In the fall of 2006 it was announced that
mobile ESPN would be halting operation at the end of the year. It was rumored that the service, at that point,
only had tens of thousands of subscribers when the business model demanded hundreds
of thousands to make it viable. Yet at the same time, when it came to mobile
news sources that year ESPN was ranked third, just behind Yahoo and CNN. ESPN was plenty popular, but the public didn’t
feel like they needed a phone dedicated to it. The closure of mobile ESPN raised eyebrows. It would be the first major failure of a popularly
branded MVNO. Beyond directly putting Disney Mobile into
question, it had the public wondering about all MVNOs. If a household name like ESPN couldn’t win
over enough subscribers, how could the little guy? Disney assured the public that the folding
of mobile ESPN didn’t mean anything for Disney Mobile. They were wrong. Just a little over a year later, in September
of 2007, it was announced that Disney Mobile would shutter at the end of that December. When questioned about the decision, Disney
argued that it was a matter of the economics needed to make it work. However what they didn’t mention was that
their primary selling point, the parental controls, were quickly becoming standard features
for cell phones. It also didn’t help that their reasonably
designed phones meant that there wasn’t any novelty to the hardware of Disney Mobile. Owning a Disney Mobile phone rapidly shifted
from having this phone designed for families… to just having a regular phone with the word
Disney on it. And while this is more speculative, something
else happened between the launch and closure of Disney Mobile. Steve Jobs: And we are calling it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone. Now I’m not going to try and argue that
the iPhone was the first smartphone. It wasn’t. However what Apple does well through their
brand is popularize relatively new technology. They help bridge the gap between obscurity
and ubiquity. So while I don’t believe the iPhone had
any direct responsibility in the short life of Disney Mobile, I do think it presented
writing on the wall for Disney. Smartphones were the future, and that short-lived
idea of MVNOs that focused on packaging a brand or content and carving out a market
was going to die off. With the adoption of smartphones, users were
going to be able to access the internet more or less the same way they would at home. That meant you didn’t need a phone specially
made for sports or games or cartoons. All you needed was a phone. Today MVNOs still exist, however they’re
not that popular in the United States. The ones that remain don’t focus on specialized
content, but instead depend on more specialized plans and pricing. As for Disney Mobile, while it shuttered in
the US, it found some moderate success overseas in other markets. Disney partnered with 3 Italia for an Italian
Disney Mobile called Disney Mobile 3… which was pretty confusing since there wasn’t
a Disney Mobile 1 or 2. They worked with Globe for a Disney Mobile
in the Philippines, and perhaps most successfully they launched Disney Mobile in Japan along
with DOCOMO. The others came and went, but Disney Mobile
in Japan is still around. They had found that of the over 3.5 million
users regularly utilizing Disney mobile sites in Japan, around 75% were women over the age
of 20. So instead of focusing on families they shifted
their attention to that demographic. And instead of offering up phone features
that were easily emulated, Disney Mobile in Japan instead focused on the one thing nobody
else could copy: their brand. They began to sell phones with Disney branded
wallpapers, icon sets, and even video content. Most importantly though, they began to sell
exclusive Disney themed phones. Disney had learned a lesson from the failure
of Disney Mobile in the US, and that lesson was apparently: Do the exact opposite of what
they already tried. Disney Mobile was a… fascinating venture. On the one hand it’s hard to blame them. They were chasing a potential gold rush like
many of the other MVNOs that would also flop as quickly as they appeared. On the other hand, many of their decisions
seemed especially odd. They intentionally chose to not leverage perhaps
their most valuable asset, their own brand, and instead focused on a bunch of phone settings
that could easily be cloned. It was short-sighted. Perhaps it was a lesson in the value of taking
time to properly plan things out. Sure they might not get in on the bottom floor,
but they’re also that much less likely to become a footnote in the company’s history. I want to give a quick shoutout to Kevin Perjurer
of Defuntland for suggesting the topic. If you like documentaries on defunct rides
and parks and television shows, be sure to check out his channel.

Comments (100)

  1. Killer closing. I always appreciate your writing. This last line today was succinct to say the least.

  2. All the Disney park apps preloaded on my phone and already signed on? Sign me up.

    Also the more I think about it, also integrate magic band so you can use the touchpoints like the VIP tour guides where they just tap their phone

  3. Can you do one on Disney life action remakes ?

  4. There ought to be a ban on the use of the term “aught”s… We ought to just leave that term for the flapper era parlance.

  5. I never even heard of this.

  6. Worth pointing out that Jobs was on the Board of Directors of Disney at the time and the largest shareholder at the company, which gives some credence to the idea that iPhone is linked to Disney Mobile’s demise. He did have a close relationship to Iger

  7. They didn't jump in completely, they took a small risk. How would you like to gamble and damage some of your biggest advantages and assets only to be met with failure? I would love to see magic bands integrated with apple watches and other smartwatch technology. Interesting to see what would happen if Apple ever bought the Walt Disney company.

  8. Superb Rob!

    PLEASE do a special on the business story behind WED!

  9. We had Disney Mobile. Best cell service and customer service we ever had. Wish they would come back.

  10. I love your channel. Keep it up!

  11. The 00's really were the wild west of consumer technology.

  12. This is so interesting! It’s why I love your videos, I’m always learning something new about this company!

  13. Please make a video about park ride programming! Bob Chapek just said Rise of the Resistance was 5 million lines of code. How many lines are other rides????????

  14. Rob, 3 refers to the Carrier not the model or release number, mate.

  15. thanks for this video I forgot about ESPN and Disney mobile. And I'm surprised Disney Mobile is still going in japan.

  16. Strangely my first cell phone was a Mickey themed one from AT&T. If I remember correctly that was ‘in ‘99 or 2000.

  17. I used Three mobile while I was in the UK. I have no idea why it's called Three at all…

  18. I used Three mobile while I was in the UK. I have no idea why it's called Three at all…

  19. Really interesting video, especially the section on the Japanese network- does this have any ties into oriental land or is it just disney corp?

  20. 5:54
    "Mufasa the Lion King is dead, and soon his cell-phone service will be gone, too."

  21. Have you ever considered doing a video about Disney in Japan?

  22. I remember ESPN mobile

  23. Could you post the transcripts under your videos again? I know you used to on old videos and really miss it. Love the channel!

  24. I would love for you to make a follow up video about disneys partnership with circle, which is Parental Control and Internet control for homes. Its a standalone product but it is also on many different individual products like routers.

  25. Rob plays, Here Did the Great Idea & design come from for the Disney MICKEY MOUSE EAR. That Everyone wear inside and Outside of the Disney resorts,Theme Parks….Did WALT Disney himself come up with the idea? Or was it Dream up after Wait Disney Passed away?? How does DISNEY keep them being involved and proved.So that way. The MICKEY MOUSE EAR don't get forgot. How come they have become so much of a Disney official icon.Besides the offering reason why..??????? Thanks…

  26. Will there be a video on D-tech in the future?

  27. Weird I don’t remember this! I was the target audience for it when it was relevant! I remember firefly though!

  28. New RobPlays series: Disney Fails. An episode each week, every Wednesday!

    Don't forget to leave a comment, Like and Subscribe!

  29. Great topic and video!!!

  30. The irony of watching this on a smartphone 🤣

  31. I’m surprised that Disney didn’t team up with Apple to give their loyal customers the best from both of those companies.

  32. Cool video, though I am still waiting for the follow up video on why Disney does not have to have blinking lights on top of there buildings.

  33. I think Disney could open some sort of store for mobile tech accessories in Disney Springs (at WDW). They might not sell service but it would be a great place to sell a wider variety of Disney branded cases for phones, tablets and other accessories. They already have some partnership with AT&T, although I won't discuss that. It would be nice to see Disney branded cases for other phones besides iPhones, which seems to be the only one they pay attention to. Although, they'd have to still be selective when it comes to Android based phones and tablets since the variety is insane. Perhaps just the higher end models of current phones. Disney Springs seems to have higher end merchants there for the most part.

    Anyway, a store with Disney branded mobile tech accessories would fit right in and could do well. They could also sell decent cords and chargers there since the crap sold at the local stores like gas stations in the area tend to burn out. Well, it's just an idea anyway.

    Great video Rob, as usual. I vaguely remember Disney Mobile but I didn't give it any thought at the time. It's good to see someone suggest the video and you produce it.

  34. 7:37 some are popular some aren't their slowly making a comeback

  35. A few of your "person using mobile phone" B-roll shots show the T-Mobile Sidekick, which I worked on for a while (I spent a lot of time working on UI performance of the model at 5:47 ). That was an actually successful phone aimed at the youth market, and it's interesting to compare what they did to what Disney did. It seems like Disney was marketing primarily to parents, not to kids–it was just assumed that the kids would want a cell phone and the pitch was that the Disney service had the features that would make their parents OK with it. The Sidekick actually appealed to kids, though. It was a proto-smartphone that concentrated on various forms of text messaging, with a huge QWERTY keyboard, and there were all kinds of outre branded versions with celebrity names on them and such. There was a really cheap data plan and the killer app was an AIM client, so you could text all day long without getting hit with the huge charges that would accrue from SMS in the days before flat-rate SMS plans. That was what teenagers actually wanted (though I suppose their parents liked the lower bills).

  36. Wow a Disney phone

  37. Is that the guy that's obsessed with Jim Henson?

  38. Video idea: The magic bands that do interesting lights/sounds rather than the normal ones.

  39. 3:03 i remember that commercial

  40. Oh god I had one of these phones

  41. Oh god, looking at those flip phones is like going in a time machine

  42. nice use of Jean Jacques Perrey as the soundtrack

  43. IDK about you but MVNOs are still very popular in Denmark, in part because of the lower prices. Think the RyanAir's of phone providers. I mean heck my phone service is an MVNO which uses 3's network. The same 3, that Disney partnered with, down in Italy

  44. ugh the japanese disney mobile phones are SO PRETTY wtf!!!

  45. Do you think it would've faired any better if they put mouse ears on the phones?

  46. Great video! You are a fountain of knowledge!

  47. 9:20 can't blame Disney completely as they were going on with what they thought were the correct choice at the time. They thought that making a heavily Disney designed phone would turn away potential customers that might thought that Disney phone look like toys. And let's be real, a heavily branded Disney flip phone would look like a toy that you can buy from toy shop, battery not included. Meanwhile, the reason Disney phone or rather smartphone today could work is because its kinda hard to make smartphone look like toys and very easy to make them fashionable. Heck, if I was born at the time, and Disney actually made a heavily branded flip phone, I might not buy it. Their smartphone however…

    It's a damned if they do and damned if they don't moment at the time.

  48. I remember my friemd Courtney had a Disney phone and I wamted one Soooo bad, it seemed so cool. I'm glad my parents stuck out with Verizon…

  49. Kevin! I watch him all the time. My daughter loves learning about old coasters

  50. OMG!!!!! I miss those mnvos I love helio ampd and virgin

  51. I saw you a few weeks ago at Epcot. You were under Space Ship Earth. I kept looking back at you. I told my friend I knew you from somewhere. The second I left the park I knew how I knew you. Great content!

  52. Totally was like “that’s bullshit they didn’t have a phone line” until I remembered that commercial from childhood.

  53. 8:04 actually that 3 is from the carrier company Three Communications. It has nothing to do with the title “Disney Mobile”

  54. Who here is using my a tracphone XD. Or used to. I know I used to

  55. I've never heard anyone call them the aughts, most people call them the noughties. Though they're both a lot more specific than just "the two thousands".

  56. 0:15 Mickey may be front and center, but I see Stitch, back there! 😁

  57. Disney went into the cell phone industry. Because of course, they did. Why am I only hearing about this, now?!

  58. But could you play the Kingdom Hearts V-Cast game on one of these things???

  59. 7:14 how much stock footage is this woman part of?!

  60. I totally forgot about this until now. I remember wanting one at the time haha.

  61. A Disney phone service what’s next a streaming service

    Hol Up

  62. That ESPN phone is badass tho

  63. I think Disney should bring back Disney Mobile but running on T-mobile's network instead of Sprint's as Sprint is trash and they should have lots of fun features for kids on both Android and iOS like games, ringtones, themes and even ESPN stuff.

  64. Earlier this year, Disney Mobile Japan announced that their service would stop in August 2021:

  65. Remebrr when the Motorola razer came out I had the dolce and gabanna one i felt THE SHIT lol

  66. I think it'd actually work nowadays with all the Disney fanatics.

  67. Wow i have been using TracFone since 2006 and man it has changed quite a lot the logo the slogans the commercials etc but all in all they are much better than [email protected]

  68. It didn't help that Steve Jobs was a member of the board of directors of Disney. He just sold Pixar to Disney, and part of the deal was a seat on the board.

  69. I used to have a MVNO network for years as the data plan was a lot cheaper than other networks at the time.

  70. 0:39 Kajeet has wares, if you have coin.

  71. man you fancy americans with your high-budget ads
    in the early 2000s the ads where i lived looked like they were straight out of the early 90s

  72. Disney mobile 3 didn’t mean actually 3 but 3 is a mobile company in Europe

  73. Have you ever considered doing a video on Pal Mickey?

  74. Your Mom wants to know your location

  75. This is hugely fascinating and weird. I was in Japan earlier this year – I wish I had kept an eye out for one

  76. So About the Italian Disney Mobile 3, It's not called Disney Mobile 3, 3 Is actually a separate company dedicated to mobiles and I know this cause the 3 presented in the commercial was there companies logo 🙂

  77. I actually feel like some of those features for parents were a pretty good idea

  78. this is still technically available

  79. don't forget about Disney circle, its awful

  80. 3 was the cellular network.

  81. Man it's wild to think just how huge the company is like the CEO is just swimming in money

  82. I remember this it was so stupid

  83. Man I wish that idea would of lasted longer. That would be dope today in 2019. Especially since parents dont seem to ever know where there kids are and what they are doing

  84. I wish a kid would pull out a Disney phone

  85. An interesting fact you didn’t mention too was the fact that 2007, the year The iPhone came out, was also the year Steve Jobs became a part of the Disney Board of Directors after they acquired Pixar, so there’s a chance that it was also leverage from Jobs for Disney not to be competing with the iPhone directly/indirectly.

  86. I remember the ESPN flip phone, I wanted it so bad when it first came out

  87. Disney mobile is still better than at&t.

  88. Please do a video on Disney circle – it's this idea but they did it with wifi

  89. 8 dollar an hour lol

  90. Now Disney is into the mobile gaming industry, selling as much as they can to little children too young to understand that the magical gems they need to keep playing are being bought with real world money. Most adults don't understand credit, that it would be unreasonable to expect a child to know how that piece of plastic they got out of their mom's purse effects real life finances.

  91. "3" is the name of a service provider in europe, mainly UK and Ireland, that's their logo showing so it's clearly a partnership rather than saying "it's the 3rd one"

  92. Actually docomo has already annouced shutting down the Disney mobile service in Japan😞
    It ends August 22nd 2021…

  93. Groupon Ad: "and it's Stranger"

    This Video: 0:00 "Disney is no Stranger"

    Me: 🤤

  94. How about the establishment of an MVNO by Nickelodeon which its service is marketed towards young people?

  95. I wanna buy a Firefly phone again just to break it…..

  96. MVNO’s are for people with bad credit or illegals

  97. very well researched and I really enjoyed it

  98. I would have loved one disney phpne back in middle school period in my younger years. I had 1 razr phone in 08. My very first cell phone.

  99. I think “Disney Mobile 3” just refers to a 3G network.

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